Chosen Family Tree
Kree Harrison’s sophomore release continues her preferred choice for combining country music with elements of pop and soul, and it’s a relatively solid followup to 2016’s This Old Thing.
Like with that album, too, Chosen Family Tree is meant to showcase that array of influences; a family tree in a musical sense, if you will. The instrumentation and production carries the warmth needed to support the work, with a rich blend of thick acoustics, careening pedal steel, strings and solid bass grooves anchoring the album. It best supports the more overtly country moments, like the effectively understated “Nothing In This World” and the solid groove-driven “I Love The Lie.” But it also starts to show its inconsistencies fairly quickly. It’d be unfair to say the album lacks a certain heft in its presentation – “Get Away With Anything” and “Lie With Me” both carry a fair amount of darker smolder in the minor chords used – but the moments that opt for straightforward soul in “Stone Cold” and “Choking Kind” feel a bit undercooked, lacking the right sense of groove and firepower needed to support the biting sentiments in the writing.
On that note, while it’s been advertised as a musical melting pot, the album operates mostly as a breakup album, where, on its best moments, the writing paints a more complex picture of the aftermath, casting neither party as in the right. Harrison is going to highlight how everything went down on “That’s How Hearts Get Broken” and find the strength to move on in “Nothing In This World,” ultimately showing how temporary companionship obviously didn’t lead to actual love. But that only comes after failing to convince herself there’s anything left to salvage in the relationship on “I Love The Lie,” meaning she’s left hoping that he’ll be the bad guy on “Make It Easy.” And the quieter, vulnerable moments are the ones where Harrison’s empathy shines. She’s a great singer with a fantastic technical and emotional range, and the fact that she still underplays the sentiments in “I Love The Lie” and “Make It Easy” is a testament to her skills as an interpreter.
Of course, it only, again, further highlights how tracks like “Stone Cold” and “Choking Kind” are trying to draw out real anger and frustration and not quite hitting either mark, and while the first half of the album is mostly great, the second half doesn’t keep the same pace. “Second Choice” suggests a darker subtext of her significant other’s possible cheating, but the song never explores that angle, instead opting for a checklist of things she’ll be for him before the turnaround of the hook. The same missed opportunity clouds “Get Away With Anything,” where the framing is toxic and, as such, pretty interesting in detailing what might have went wrong in the relationship to support the thematic arc, but again, the checklist writing never leads to an interesting payoff. And of the covers toward the end, “End Of The World” is pretty tastefully done, all things considered, but “Mother” feels completely out of place, especially with the overproduction and additional children’s choir that’s way too syrupy for the sentiment. Which is still to say that Chosen Family Tree is a good listen with plenty to offer; I’d just to like those strengths fine-tuned a bit more.
Recommended tracks: “I Love The Lie,” “Make It Easy,” “That’s How Hearts Get Broken”
Here On Earth
Even after a mediocre duets album with wife Faith Hill and a run of bizarre single choices on Sony Music Nashville, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tim McGraw’s 16th studio album, Here On Earth – his return to Big Machine Records – is a relatively solid listen that continues to show him aging gracefully with his material.
With that said, of the few albums he’s released on the label, Here On Earth feels like his weakest one yet – an attempt at a huge return to form that, instead, often feels too bloated and overcooked to maintain any sense of consistency. At the very least, it continues McGraw’s voyage into spacier sonic tendencies, building off the huge, atmospheric production established on earlier records.
The problem is that the moments where it happens don’t feel all that adventurous otherwise. “Chevy Spaceship” carries an interesting concept, but it’s essentially bro-country set in space, and the heavier distortion placed on the instrumentation and McGraw’s vocals can’t help but feel overdone. And that’s a problem with the album, really. The production is often lush and atmospheric, and from a pure melodic standpoint, it’s mostly potent. But the abundance of midtempo ballads and heavier reliance on reverb also means the album comes on a bit too thick and blends together after a while. I like the bagpipes added to the title track to support the melody and huge hook, for instance, but not when McGraw’s voice is slathered with enough reverb to make him sound completely blown out in the mix.
Granted, I can understand the moments that opt for a bigger presentation. This is, after all, McGraw’s attempt at blending the old with the new, as heard on “Hard To Stay Mad At” and “If I Was A Cowboy,” the former sampling his own “I Need You” with the aforementioned Hill and the latter sampling his “The Cowboy In Me.” And that’s on top of outright referencing his own “Where The Green Grass Grows” on “7500 OBO” or featuring a song called “Sheryl Crow” that seems to only include the titular artist to fit a weak rhyme for the hook. It’s ambitious and carries a lot of heart – I’ll give it that – but it rarely comes together for anything interesting.
Which, sadly, is also a note on the songwriting. To be fair, it’s also the area this album excels most at, especially with more reflective tracks – personal or otherwise – in “L.A.” and “Damn Sure Do.” McGraw has always carried a rough, hangdog charisma that gives his material some natural rollick and charm, and it even supports some of the cornier moments in “Good Taste In Women” and “I Called Mama.” But like with the album itself, there’s only so much McGraw can do at times to elevate weak material at points. “Hallelujahville” is “Drugs or Jesus” without the darker shades of drama that made that track so great, and “7500 OBO” is about the despair that comes with saying goodbye … to a truck.
With 16 tracks, though, there are some genuine highlights. I enjoy the maturity evident in “Hold You Tonight” as McGraw observes how his significant other clearly isn’t happy and is yearning for something more, thereby encouraging her to leave and chase those dreams without him. And “Doggone” just may redeem the album outright, a track about a deceased pet that, while thematically familiar for a country song, is elevated by McGraw’s warm charisma. He treats his dog like a true, old friend, lending the track an effectively simplicity echoed by one of his other best hits in this vein, “My Old Friend.”
As a whole, though, it’s an ambitious effort that often feels too self-indulgent to like a little bit more. It’s good to have McGraw back, but his return is more than a bit uneven.
Recommended tracks: “Doggone,” “Hold You Tonight,” “Damn Sure Do”
Country State Of Mind
Josh Turner has always felt like one of those artists who debuted too late, even for country music standards in the early 2000s. That’s not meant to diminish his string of hits, mind you; it’s meant to highlight how his warm baritone would have fit in better with the class of ‘89 than it ultimately did with, say, Rascal Flatts. That became even more glaringly obvious in the 2010s, where Turner’s original material began to suffer from artistic compromises he had to make to maintain relevancy, only to lead to delayed releases and long periods where fans just didn’t hear from him.
In other words, between his 2018 gospel album, I Serve A Savior, and his newest album, Country State Of Mind, Turner is playing it smart by releasing passion projects not geared toward country radio – especially when I doubt the winds of country music will ever shift back toward his style. Given, too, how Turner’s own albums can feel uneven, Country State Of Mind may even be his best – a clear labor of love that’s certainly among Turner’s most inspired efforts yet.
Now, with the possible exceptions of “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance” and “Desperately,” I wouldn’t say any of these covers surpass the originals, but that’s more of a note on the elite class of artists who inspired Turner and the song selection he’s chosen to tackle; “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” is a one-of-a-kind track that speaks to Keith Whitley’s tragically short life, and Alan Jackson’s reverence for Hank Williams is simply captured best by him on “Midnight In Montgomery.”
Like with any good covers album, however, it’s easy to see how this material has shaped Turner’s own discography, enough to where it doesn’t always feel like a covers album. The title track and the “Good Ol’ Boys” covers are the weakest ones here – the latter likely being the only bizzarely unnecessary choice – but they’re in Turner’s wheelhouse of tracks that speak to country living without the usual smugness and reactionary attitudes that typically come with those songs. And after hearing Turner’s own “Pallbearer,” the “Alone and Forsaken” and “The Caretaker” covers not only feel welcome here, but speak to how Turner rarely goes for the obvious choices to cover.
Take “Desperately,” for example, which, while among George Strait’s most underrated hits, is largely forgotten today. But with Maddie & Tae providing harmony vocals and Turner’s warm, gentle charisma driving the track, it reveals a deeper nuance to the melody that wasn’t quite there before. The same can be said for how much angst Turner is conveying on “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me” alongside Runaway June, even if it’s hard to top Patty Loveless and George Jones, because, you know, it’s Patty Loveless and George Jones. But again, it’s a labor of love above all else. Letting Randy Travis sing the final “Amen” on “Forever and Ever, Amen,” and recruiting Allison Moorer for “Alone and Forsaken” gives this album the extra level of care it deserves.
Now, not all of the duets make sense. Great as it is to hear John Anderson on “I’ve Got It Made,” it doesn’t really work as a duet, nor is it among Anderson’s strongest cuts, even if it’s easy to hear how much this influenced Turner’s own “Everything Is Fine.” The same can be said for the “Why Me” cover, though that’s more of a note on its lyrical focus than anything else. And the sequencing nerd in me can’t help but think that not following Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” with “Midnight In Montgomery” is a missed opportunity, but that’s nitpicking of the highest degree.
On the note of sequencing, though, that this album ends with the morbid “The Caretaker” speaks to a dark subtext of where Turner’s career is at currently. He sounds as great as he ever has before and has delivered his best work yet, but he’s speaking to time periods that seem far too distanced from mainstream country music today, which is more of a note on quality than it is sound; it’s sad, too, above all else. Thankfully, cover albums like this provide the needed links to the past as bookmarks for further discovery for newer country music fans. And by framing this album around songs that speak deeply to Turner’s personal tastes in country music, it’s among the most heartwarming listens of 2020 yet.
Recommended tracks: “Alone and Forsaken” (feat. Allison Moorer), “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me” (feat. Runaway June), “Desperately” (feat. Maddie & Tae)